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Uncertain Jew

An Egyptian exile considers Jewish identity—and his own—in a cosmopolitan world. Excerpted from the new essay collection Alibis.

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Sigmund Freud, 1921. (Wikimedia Commons)
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In the new Alibis, a revealing collection of essays, André Aciman finds in his exiled Egyptian life a quintessential diasporic Jewish identity

The man in this 1921 photograph is 65 years old, bald, with what looks like a white trimmed beard, his left hand poised not so much on his left waist as on his lower left hip, displacing the side of his jacket, his bearing confident, a bit menacing perhaps, and yet, despite the purposeful and intentionally secure posture, always a touch apprehensive. As with all the older men in my father’s family album, in his hand, which is slightly uplifted, he is holding something that looks like a cigarillo, though it is somewhat thicker than a cigarillo, but not quite as big as a cigar; at its tip there seem to be ashes. One might say (if only to mimic a famous reconstructive analysis of how Michelangelo’s Moses holds his tablets) that it is almost as though the photographer had not warned his subject in time, and therefore the subject, thinking this was a pause in between takes, went for a quick puff and didn’t manage to remove the guilty cigarillo in time, so that the cigarillo, from being an item to be kept out of the picture, once caught, ends up occupying center stage.

Something tells me, however, it might just as easily be a small pen instead. Still, one doesn’t hold a pen between one’s middle and index fingers, especially with the hand turned outward in so relaxed a manner. No, not a pen. Besides, why would a pen appear when the subject is standing up and when there clearly is no desk anywhere in the background? It must be a cigar.

On closer inspection, it seems that there is something quite studied in his relaxed posture: one hand akimbo, the other almost placing the cigarette on exhibit, not as an afterthought, not diffidently, but declaratively. The ashes themselves say quite a bit: They are not about to spill, as may have seemed at first; they are in fact honed to a point, as with a pencil sharpener, which is why I thought of a pen, a ballpoint, all the while knowing that ballpoints did not exist at the time this picture was taken. Stranger yet, there is no smoke emanating from the cigarillo, which suggests either that the smoke was touched up and blotted out in the photo lab, or that the cigarillo was never even lit.

Which means that the cigarillo in the photo has a totally intentional presence.

What is this gentleman—and there is no doubt, since the posture proves he is a gentleman—doing exhibiting his cigarillo that way? Could it be that this is just a cigarillo, or is it much more than a cigarillo, much more than a pen, even, the ur-symbol of all symbols, not just of defiance, of menace, of security, or of wrath, even, but simply of power? This man knows who he is; despite his age, he is strong, and he can prove it; witness his cigarillo—it doesn’t spill its ashes.

Another, younger picture of the same subject, taken around 1905, suggests more or less the same thing. The hair is neatly combed—there is much more of it—the beard, though grayish, is bushier. Behind the seated subject is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s statue of a dying slave, standing in naked and contorted agony. The man in this photograph stares at the camera with something like a very mild stoop, his shoulders less confident, uneasy, almost cramped. He looks tired, overworked, worn out; in his left hand he is holding a cigar that seems to have been smoked all the way down; he is holding its puny remains at one or two centimeters above the spot where his thighs meet, almost—and I stress the almost—echoing the flaunted nudity of the dying slave behind him.

I may have made too much of the symbolism here. I would, let me hasten to say, respectfully withdraw every word, were it not for the fact that the subject of these two pictures, ostensibly fraught with Freudian symbolism, is none other than Freud himself. How can anyone look at Freud’s cigarillo and not think Freudian thoughts?

However, there is another symbol at work here. Indeed, looking back at the pictures, it occurs to me that something had clearly happened between the older man standing up in 1922 and the somewhat younger man sitting down in 1905. What happened, of course, is success.

The man in the later picture is an established man. A man of property, of substance. His is the pose that all men adopted when being photographed: It conveyed composure, worldliness, confidence, plenitude, security, a touch arrogant perhaps, but without a doubt, this was a man of the world, a much-traveled, sought-after individual who had seen and lived much. In fact he was more than just established, he had made it, he had, as the French say, arrived. An arriviste is someone who strives to arrive; a parvenu, however, is someone who has arrived. You posed with a cigarette, or a cigar, or a cigarillo, not just because the cigar suggested security—as though those with, as opposed to without, cigars were worthier men—but also because the cigarillo was an instrument, an implement, a prosthesis for grounding oneself in the picture and, by extension, in the world. Smoking doesn’t suggest success, it screams success. It locks it in. A successful Jew who smokes is living proof that he has attained a degree of prominence.

Let me resort to another word, which is much used nowadays and which conveys a neo-Jewish nightmare: This man had assimilated. Assimilate is a strange verb, used without a direct or indirect object to mean being swallowed up, absorbed, and incorporated into mainstream Gentile society. But the verb has another meaning, closely linked to its etymology: To assimilate means to become similar to, to simulate.

The irony is that this was how one posed to simulate success. You were photographed with a smoking implement to appear you weren’t posing, to appear as though you had achieved enough stature not to have to pose at all. You posed with a cigar to suggest you weren’t posing with a cigar. You belonged and, therefore, no longer had to worry about belonging. The Italians may have called this posturing sprezzatura; add a pipe and the complications reach Magrittian proportions. A Jew poses with a cigar to symbolize two things: that he has achieved social and professional success, but also that he has successfully assimilated.

There were many other Jews with cigars.

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Move to Israel and be a proud Jew.

Beautifully written article, Mr. Aciman! I look forward to reading more.

Paul Tucker says:

Hi, cigarillo is probably not the correct term. It looks like a figurado to me.

JCarpenter says:

other Jews with cigars—as in Groucho Marx, whose best quip was “I’d never belong to a club that would allow me as a member.” The term self-loathing _can take on humor—

I truly wish I hadn’t witnessed this when i want only one right now!

It’s exhausting to find educated individuals on this subject, however you sound like you recognize what you’re talking about! Thanks

Jacob Arnon says:

Another soap opera article by a “Jewish intellectual.”


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Uncertain Jew

An Egyptian exile considers Jewish identity—and his own—in a cosmopolitan world. Excerpted from the new essay collection Alibis.